I like that dusty, maritime region of Europe known as Catalonia, and, in France, Languedoc. Josep Pla is from that area, specifically Ampurdan. His diary from the period at the end of WWI, heavily reworked over the succeeding decades, has just be translated and published by the NYRB. It is a delightful read.
This book is long, and before starting it, I asked myself, “Do I really want to spend this much time in this man’s life?” Almost immediately after starting, I realized that the answer was yes. Here’s a bit from one of his countless arguments in a café:
Literature,” he said, “should be idealistic, delicate, out of the ordinary, It should come from here” — and he placed his hand over the heart.
“And why must literature be like that?” I asked.
“Because literature is for moments when there is nothing to do, when nothing is pressing, the only time there’s a vague possibility that people might want to curl up with a book. Man wasn’t brought into the world to read books. Make no mistake…the single serious problem we face in this world is how to get by, that is how to earn or spend money. Men and women devote ninety-eight percent of their conscious life to that. And that’s probably an understatement. So, literature will always be a Sunday-afternoon activity, a moment on the day in the week when maybe — and this was truer years ago, since nowadays people to the movies — maybe they’ll feel like some distraction from their abiding obsessions. And you expect them to pine for your raw, spare, realist fiction? Why? They’ve already had more than their fill of your real life. Your kind of literature is redundant, flat–footed, commonplace, blindingly obvious.”
Well, I like fantasy, and I like realism. And Pla hardly wrote any fiction at all – perhaps none at all. And yet he gives full billing to these somewhat crackpot ideas in his journal. And clearly, he’s somehow sympathetic, at least to the spirit of his friend. Then there’s this;
Today Enric Grigola said that he knows a big fat man with a sensitive soul who feels immediately relieved of all material needs and worries , in a state of grace, whenever he loosens his belt a notch.
Coromina laughs when he hears this piece of information, and Frigola launches into him with feigned indignation, half ironic, half annoyed. “You mock everything!” he says. “I give you physical proof of states of mind that are purely spiritual, and you laugh. What more do you want? You’re never satisfied.”
Another book that I am reading takes up the theme of distraction, in an almost medical sense, and with a good deal of irony. The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox is remarkable and entertaining for several reasons. It was written by a woman, who had help in the writing business from Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson; it is very funny; it is an inversion of another Spanish tale, i.e. Don Quixote. Instead of a man bewitched by tales of chivalry, bent on rescuiong damsels in distress, we have an intelligent and sharp-witted young lady intent on playing the role of female heroine of romance. She insists on interpreting the behavior of all around her through the lens of her books, but though she is ridiculous, we end up rooting for her. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman in a man’s world, or maybe it’s just the sheer determination she brings to having things (in appearance, at least) her own way that is so winning.